Once a quiet fishing village, the coastal city of Puerto Vallarta found its way into the spotlight when director John Huston used it as the stage for his 1964 film Night of the Iguana. A glut of Hollywood A-listers arrived soon thereafter inspired, in part, by the scandalous romance between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who set up his and hers pieds-à-terre above the cobbled streets of Viejo Vallarta.
Through the years, Puerto Vallarta has assumed multiple personas — from glamorous celebrity getaway to Love Boat port-of-call to spring break stomping ground. These days, the colorful city may just be Mexico’s ultimate seaside destination. Tucked into the emerald horseshoe of Banderas Bay and surrounded by the rugged Sierra Madre, Puerto Vallarta offers the perfect blend of colonial-era charm and modern Latin American flair, with a thriving LGBTQ community, dynamic cultural and culinary offerings, and abundant natural beauty.
Here’s our guide to getting the most out of your time in this vibrant coastal hub.
Things to Do
On the Town
Several distinct neighborhoods make up Puerto Vallarta, but most visitors focus their time in bustling El Centro and charming Viejo Vallarta, a.k.a. The Romantic Zone. You can certainly wander the city’s seaside promenade or quaint cobblestone streets on your own, but tapping into the knowledge of a Vallarta local offers a deeper dive into PV’s history and culture.
One of those is Mexico City native Memo Lira, who moved to Puerto Vallarta eight years ago. Upon falling in love with his new hometown, Memo launched Vallarta 101 to share his passion for the city. Exploring with Memo is more like taking a walk with a friend than participating in a guided tour — you’ll come away well-acclimated to Puerto Vallarta’s geography and well-versed in its past and present stories. What’s more? Memo does not charge for these experiences — guests are invited to pay what they want at the end if they enjoyed themselves, which they always do.
While Puerto Vallarta lures the bulk of its visitors with sunshine and surf, the city’s numerous galleries, murals and outdoor installations attract a steady stream of art lovers as well. Take a stroll along the Malecón, a 12-block pedestrian esplanade on the edge of the Pacific, which features a series of stunning bronze sculptures. Learn about these unique works alongside Galería Colectika owner Kevin Simpson, who offers free morning and sunset tours that include cameo appearances by some of the artists. Tours end at Galería Pacífico, where longtime gallerist Gary Thompson shares stories about Puerto Vallarta’s vibrant art scene. On Wednesday evenings through the end of May, aficionados can participate in Vallarta’s weekly Art Walk, a self-guided ramble to several historic district galleries featuring Mexican and international artwork, ceramics and jewelry.
Area craftspeople and producers abound at the Olas Altas Farmers Market held on Saturday mornings in Lázaro Cárdenas Park and hyper-local wares — everything hails from within 50 kilometers of Puerto Vallarta — make excellent souvenirs. Pick up a bag of organic coffee from the husband and wife team who own Café Yolanda Superior del Pacifico, step into a colorful pair of handmade sandals crafted by Begoña López Morales or sample Tamalei Diva Adriana Basail’s fresh, seasonal tamales. The park itself is a work of art. Over the past 18 months, local artist Natasha Moraga has embarked on a mission to cover every surface with brilliantly hued tiles — part of her public art project Vallarta Mosayko. From December through April, Moraga offers volunteer programs on Mondays, Tuesday, Thursdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for folks who want to lend a hand.
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Flavors of Jalisco
The west-central Mexican state of Jalisco has long been celebrated for its rich history and culture. It’s the birthplace of the charros — Mexico’s cowboys — mariachi music, and perhaps most famously, tequila, a spirit made from the blue agave. Lately, culinary-minded travelers have pegged Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco’s coastal hub, as one of Mexico’s most innovative foodie destinations as well.
Hit the town with the folks at Vallarta Food Tours, who specialize in heading off the tourist track to some of the city’s lesser-known gastronomic gems. Several tours are offered, but you’ll feel like a true Vallarta native on “The Street,” an evening foray to eateries that come to life after sunset. Along the way, sample a variety of delicious tacos, sugary churros, and Racilla, a hyper-local agave spirit.
Elevate your understanding and appreciation for Jalisco’s prized spirit during a tequila tasting at the Marriott Puerto Vallarta with Audrey Formisano, the resort’s in-house tequilera — or tequila sommelier. You won’t see a salt shaker or wedge of lime on the table as Formisano guides you through the resort’s portfolio of exclusive CasaMagna tequilas and shares stories about the agave-derived elixir’s cultural significance and creation. Sipped from champagne flutes rather than tossed back as a shot, the four varieties — blanco, reposado, añejo and extra añejo — are paired with fruit and cheeses selected to bring out the nuance of flavor.
Inspired by the dishes prepared by their mothers and abuelas, Marriott chefs crafted Jalisco at Your Table, a seven-course menu spotlighting the state’s culinary heritage. The meal opens with savory tamales followed by traditional fare like wood-fired zarandeado fish, creamy roasted corn soup and rich birria tacos prepared with a contemporary twist. For an extra-special experience, ask to be seated in the resort’s herb garden.
Despite its spectacular setting overlooking Banderas Bay and the Sea of Cortez, Puerto Vallarta’s beaches rarely rank as Mexico’s best. That said, with a bit of effort you’ll find turquoise coves and deserted swaths of sand just a few miles south of the city center.
Before heading farther afield, Vallarta’s famed Playa Los Muertos merits a stroll. Plan to do so first thing in the morning when the beachfront bars and restaurants are just waking up for the day, and happy dogs chase Frisbees into the surf. Be sure to check out the Los Muertos Pier. Designed by award-winning architect José de Jesús Torres Vega and built in 2013 as part of the city’s downtown revitalization project, the pier became an instant Puerto Vallarta icon. Afterward, grab breakfast on the leafy patio at local favorite Coco’s Kitchen — churro hotcakes and huevos rancheros provide delicious fuel for the day’s adventures.
From Coco’s, it’s a 30-minute taxi or Uber ride to Boca de Tomatlán, the jumping off point for the multiple beaches tucked along Vallarta’s south shore. Ask your driver to bring you to the tiny town’s pier, where brightly painted pangas (motorized skiffs) wait to zip you across the water to the beach. One of the prettiest is Playa Las Animas, a long stretch of tawny sand studded with beach bars all offering lounge chairs, umbrellas, classic Mexican fare and ice-cold bottles of Pacifico.
It’s refreshingly simple and affordable to get around by taxi or Uber. An Uber from Marina Vallarta to the Malecón costs about 115 pesos ($6), while the fare from the Malecón to Boca de Tomatlán should be around 200 pesos ($13). Hiring a panga from Boca to Las Animas will run you about 100 pesos per person each way, but you can always negotiate.
Where to Stay
Each of Puerto Vallarta’s neighborhoods has something unique to offer. People looking to land in the middle of the action flock to El Centro and Viejo Vallarta, where the narrow streets are lined with boutiques, galleries, bars and restaurants. In the Hotel Zone, large, full-service resorts sit shoulder-to-shoulder on a long stretch of sandy beach near a mall, grocery stores and even a Costco. To the north, Marina Vallarta has an upscale, coastal feel just 10 minutes from the airport and an easy taxi ride from the heart of the city.
Gina DeCaprio Vercesi is a New York-based journalist who contributes to National Geographic Traveler and Travel + Leisure.